Watching recent events unfold in Japan has engendered mixed emotions, ranging from horror at the merciless onslaught of the tsunamis to despair at the crass insensitivity of the inevitable tidal wave of black humour that engulfed mobile phones just hours later. Both were the effects of terrible causes, though the latter, arguably, could have been abated had the authors considered that even humour ought, on occasion, to observe respectful boundaries.
In some ways it is poignant that the Japanese earthquake occurred just a few days after Professor Brian Cox’s eloquent commentary on entropy in the first of his “Wonders of the Universe” series. What he had amply demonstrated using wind and sandcastles — the remorseless law that order ultimately tends towards disorder — was shown in dreadful action, on continuous loop from newsrooms around the world.
Watching those video feeds, it struck me forcibly how, even in the midst of chaos, there was order: cars, timber and other debris congregating in loose islands as the waves surged around them; a man found, alive, on the roof of his house, a life raft drifting atop the very waters that had claimed his wife hours earlier.
The tsunami is a metaphor for our very existence. Life and sentience both represent order emerging from the seething sea of energy, as it transforms to higher entropy; our coming about was highly improbable and yet, in an infinite universe, probably inevitable. We float on tiny rafts of order, sticking two fingers up at entropy, as it buffets us from all sides. Eventually it will pluck us back into the maelstrom, but, until then, it’s a hell of a ride. Better still, we can actually conceive of what an incredible happenstance we are. We can begin to understand how life came about, and we can do so without the need to invent a creator or a shepherd.
We are fragile, yes. At any moment the metaphorical tsunami can engulf us. Indeed, it does so on a daily basis. One by one, and often en masse. There are no guarantees, so let’s appreciate the ride that chance has given us. Better still, let’s respect each other as miracles of probability. Knowing that the odds are totally stacked in favour of the entropic Universe, does it make any sense to take a scythe to one another for personal gain? Is that really the very best that we can do?
Yes, I’m looking at you, Colonel Gaddafi.
(To contribute to the relief effort in Japan text REDCROSS to 90999)